Anne Brontë’s ‘Agnes Grey’: A Melancholy Story with a Happy Ending

Agnes Grey page

I first read Anne Brontë’s ‘Agnes Grey’ a long time ago – in my early twenties – about the time that I first read ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’.

I believe a fair number of people consider it her masterpiece in its brevity and tight plotting. I can see it has those features, but I can’t agree that it is the better story . I infinitely prefer the excitement and Gothic drama of ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ – but then, as a writer of Gothic myself, ‘I would say that, wouldn’t I?’

There are arguably faults in the structure of ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’;  I don’t know if the ‘story within a story structure’ used in it – also famously used by Emily Brontė in ‘Wuthering Heights’ – is the best method of revealing Helen Huntingdon’s former history.  I personally think a series of shorter flashbacks might be more engrossing – but there are valid objections to two parralel stories as more confusing. It is a problem I know from my own experience when writing ‘Ravensdale’.  There are also notorious faults in character portrayal in ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ and other weaknesses.

Overall, thoughy,  I found ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ to be a gripping story in the way that the quiet tale of the dismal existence of the unfortunate early Victorian governess is not. Probably, then, it is a matter of taste.

After all, defenders of the story would say that the quiet tone is the point. The story was written to highlight the miserable position of the governess in the UK of the mid nienteenth century, and could not by its very nature be exciting. Agnes Grey’s lonely existence as a governess contains precious little excitement, pleasure or even peace.

In her position as a social inferior to the family, while also not part of the domestic staff,  she has nobody on her side, and no-one to talk to. She has no social life, and anyway, her wretched salary – £25 a year – is too low for her to be able to socialise, even if she could find a respectable escort to chaperone her.  The families for whom she works don’t even assume that as a young girl she might actually want a little fun. In fact, her feelings are not considered at all.

She has a foreshadowing of this when she arrives at her first post after a long, cold journey: ‘The cold wind had swelled and reddened my hands, entangled and uncurled my hair, and dyed my face a of a pale purple. ..(Mrs Bloomfield) led me into the dining-room where the family luncheon  had been laid out. Some beefsteaks and half cold potatoes were set before me, and while I dined upon these, she sat opposite, watching me (as I thought) and endeavouring to sustain something like a conversation. ..In fact, my attention was almost wholly absorbed I my dinner; not from ravenous appetite, but from distress at the toughness of the beefsteaks, and the numbness of  my hands, almost palsied by their five hours exposure to the bitter windWith a feeble attempt at a laugh, I said, ‘My hands are so benumbed with the cold that I an scarcely handle my knife and fork.’ ‘I dare say you would find it cold,’ replied she with a cool, immutable gravity that did not serve to re-assure me.’

Unfortunately for Agnes, the husband is even less approachable and often downright rude, while the children are  not only completely undisciplined and unmanageable, but impossible to teach. The parents will not back up any of Agnes’ attempts to get them to learn their lessons. Meanwhile they constantly complain of their offsprings’ apparently learning nothing.

Not only that, but some of the family members encourage the obnoxious ‘Master Tom’ in his cruelty to animals, culminating in the notorious scene where Agnes immediately kills a brood of nestlings rather than leave them to his torments.

Agnes Grey image

Her next post is not quite as exhausting. Her charges are older, while the two unruly boys are sent off to boarding school after some months. Still, the vain Rosalie and the hoydenish Matilda Murray make life anything but easy for Agnes, and the constant snubs that were a governess’ daily lot are a source of great unhappiness to the sensitive Agnes:

‘…(As) none of the afore-mentioned gentlemen and ladies ever noticed me, it was disagreeable to walk beside them, as if listening to what they said, or wishing to be thought one of them, while they talked over me or across, and if their eyes, in speaking, chanced to fall on me, it seemed as if they looked on vacancy – as if they either did not see me, or were very desirous to make it appear so.

If the Bloomfields – who are portrayed as nouveau riche – are ill mannered in their treatment of a dependant, it seems extraordinary that more established families would not have been taught more gracious manners.

Finally, Agnes does find love and happiness. This is after a sub-plot involving the heartless predatory flirtatiousness of Rosalie, who having humiliated the arrogant Rector, moves on to other potential victims.

On the characters in the novel, some of these are excellently done, though it is a shame that so few of them are more likable. In fact, Agnes comments on this dearth of congenial minds about her.  No doub it is based on the author’s own experience in the posts she occupied as governess,  as critics have often noted how both of Agnes’ employer’s families are based on the two for which she worked as govenress.

My own impression is that while the ending is a happy  one, it is so muted in tone that the pervasive melancholy of the novel is what struck me in this reading as much as last time. There is too little happiness in it, coming in at the very end.  Unlike Victorian readers, I find ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ far less distressing. The humour there is more robust, and so is the temperament of the heroine.

Many other governesses in fiction have a less dismal time of it.  Charlotte Brontë’s Jayne Eyre, is plunged into Gothic adventures despite her lowly position as governess, but this is solely dependent on the whims of her master Mr Rochester, who is obliging enough to fall in love with her. I have to admit that I enjoyed that Gothic story, too, far more than the low key and realistic ‘Agnes Grey’.

A story that I didn’t enjoy – though full of wild and improbable adventure involving a governess – is the 1895 one by Charles Garvice that I have reviewed elsewhere on this blog, ‘The Marquis’.

This novel, which ranks as literature rather lower than that of the Brontė  sisters, revolves around the said Marquis falling in love with his governess. He has been decidedly wicked, but he repents very soon after meeting the noble Constance , governess to his annoying   Little Lord Fauntleroy-esque annoying nephew. She has been forced to earn her living as a governess after her father becomes insane after discovering a formula which rivals that of the Alchemists.

Though the Marquis eyes have to flash and Constance has to turn from red to white (but never blue) innumberable times during the improbable happenings that follow, the happy ending is naturally a foregone conclusion. Written as appalingly as only Charles Garvice can, this heroine of this piece of nonsense is so unsympathetic that for my own part, I felt far more anxiety about the fate of Matilda Murray’s  terrier, sold to the cruel local rat catcher, but finally rescued by the hero.

Film Versions of Classic Novels and ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.’



I tend to find film versions of books disappointing. By their very nature, they have to be truncated and dramaticised, and that to my mind does away with various subtleties and nuances. Two characters are often joined into one, others written out of the script. Various events are transposed. Quite often things are simplified.

For instance, to take a trivial example,  in the book version of ‘Pride and Prejudice’, Mary Bennett is not meant to be noticably bad at singing and playing the piano. She is in fact described as being better than Elizabeth at both; it is her affected style that draws derision from Miss Bingley and her sister.

 Obviously, film makers (anyway in the versions I have seen) think that is one of the subtleties which should be done away with in the interests of clarity – and comedy. Poor Mary is made to sing ‘Ombra mai fu’ wholly out of tune (for those interested, it is a wonderful aria from Handel’s  1738 opera’ Xerses’ and I use it as a sort of signature tune in ‘That Scoundrel Émile Dubois’ ).   

For all that, I did think the film versions of both ‘The Remains of the Day’ and ‘Pascali’s Island’  were as good as the books.  I’m not quite sure why that was. Perhaps they were better suited somehow for  dramatic adaption than such classics as ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and ‘Vanity Fair’?  

Anyway, one of my favourite novels being ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’, and having never got round to seeing the television series, I was pleased to be given the 1990’S DVD for Christmas.

I have just seen it. I enjoyed it, and the acting was very good. Toby Stephens made a sympathetic Gilbert Markham, with a Yorkshire accent to show his social inferiority as a farmer to Helen Huntingdon. Rupert Graves made a suitably caddish and lively Arthur Huntingdon, and Tara Fitzgerald made an appropriately strong-minded Helen.

 Still, overall, I felt it could not compare to the book. To my mind, the spiritual message in the novel – and in particular, the discussion of Helen Huntingdon’s (and Anne Brontë’s) belief in Universal Salvation, was wholly left out. Due to the need for dramatic structure, many events were conflated or treated in a different sequence than in the novel. Some of the characters were deleted, or two were combined into one, or their role was slightly different.  

Certainly, it is true that the complicated structure of the book – a tale within a tale – makes for difficlties in filming, as with ‘Wuthering Heights’.  There is, in the book, a prolonged flashback when Gilbert reads Helen’s diary. The book as an early Victorian novel makes for slow reading for the modern reader.

I felt that Helen’s early high-spirited playfulness was neglected (as Elizabeth Bennett’s in ‘Pride and Prejudice’ never is). One of the tragedies of the novel is how these high spirits are crushed by her embittering existence as the neglected wife of a selfish man slipping into habitual drunkeness.

 Likewise, the message about her youthful hubris seemed to me not to be given sufficient emphasis. To me, besides the theme of wrongdoing and forgiveness, the tale of Helen’s youthful presumption was also central.

She blithely assumes that despite her youth and inexperience and complete lack of equality of power as a wife in the England of the 1820’s,  she will be able to use her influence  to reform a rake ten years her senior. She is confident of this, even though she must see that he is not exactly determined upon that reform himself.

One of the intriguing things about the plot is that Arthur Huntingdon is too emotionally superficial for Helen’s dreams of changing him to stand any chance of success. Not only do his passions for his mistresses never last, but his passion for his wife is not much deeper.

In the typical romance, the debauched male lead’s feelings for the heroine are different from those he has had for women before, and too intense for him to resist his impetus to change. –  By contrast, in ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ Helen tragically assumes that Arthur’s feelings for her are deeper than they are.   

A fault of the book, I thought, was the fact that Helen goes from slightly disillusioned with Arthur to wearily so within too short a space of text.

In her theme of a youthful, spirited heroine who dismally fails to reform a wicked libertine, Anne Brontė wrote a story which is a polar opposite to a favourite theme of historical romances that remains extremely popular today, where an innocent girl reforms a seemingly incorrigible libertine merely by becoming his love object.  This is another aspect that has always made the story particularly fascinating to me.I would say that the producer did try to bring this theme out, but I have to say if I hadn’t read the book, I would have been less aware of it.

I would certainly have been puzzled by some of the developments of the plot if I hadn’t read the book.

Perhaps it was in line with the ‘anti romantic’ theme that the costumes struck me as unnecessarily dowdy – with an early Victorian, rather than a late Regency or late Georgian flavour. In having Helen Huntingdon dress quietly, the producers were following the author. But I cannot imagine why Annabella Wilmot, later Lady Loughborough and Arthur Huntingdon’s mistress, would dress anything but flauntingly.

An odd problem was caused by the fact whoever did the casting chose a cast largely of dark haired actors, to the point where the heroine’s brother and her husband so resembled each other in poor light that I would have mixed them up at times if I hadn’t read the book. In fact, given that Gilbert is also played by a dark haired actor, I might at one time have wondered if her brother was attacked by his own doppleganger: a gothic scene indeed…

Still, for all my carping, overall I thought it was very well done, and here’s a scene.



Heathcliff Meets Huntingdon and Jane Eyre: Wuthering Heights Spoof Sequel Part Two

thSetting: Wuthering Heights: Heathcliff and Arthur Huntingdon now sit at the table in the great room with the ‘houseplace’ and the great fire, decidedly the worse for drink. Both clutch a pack of marked cards.

Joseph and Hareton go along the passageway outside, making for the stairs.

Joseph: ‘Tis fair shocking. I’m afeered t’upstart maister is behaving as he did in t’auld days when he strived to take this house from its rightful maister. Worse. For I’ve heard him laugh out loud. A fair sin and a shame I call it. I’m to my bed in t’attic with my bedtime reading: ‘The Hideous Sufferings of the Damned in The Lake of Burning Fire, and How the Elect Chuckle to See It’. That day can’t coom soon enough, I reckon, for t’gentry in there.

Hareton: Well, I’ll not join ‘em; I’ve got a full days’ work tomorrow. I’ll smoke my pipe in bed (starts upstairs; pauses:) Joseph?

Joseph: What, lad?

Hareton: Dust eever think that there might be more to life than this?

Joseph: Why, nay lad; never. What more could theere be?

Hareton: (casts around in his mind) Well…

Joseph: You see; idle nowts of fancies put in thy mind by the fiend himself. Beware! You’ll be thinking o’ nasty flauntin’ queens next.

(They are halfway up the stairs before Hareton suddenly stops) Fun!

Joseph (drawing back) What?!

Hareton: Fun. I vaguely mind me we had some o’ that now and ageen, in t’auld days. wuthering heights

Joseph: Don’t be daft, lad. I’ve never had any fun in night on seventy year, and its never done me any harm.

(Hareton remains silent: Joseph sighs and groans about idle thoughts as they clump up to bed.)

Huntingdon: (aside) This sneaking fellow may well scheme to get his hands on my property with his pack of marked cards, having used that trick before. But he shan’t fool me as he did that pathetic fool, Hindley Earnshaw. I’ve got my own pack of marked cards, and few have a more seasoned head than I.

Heathcliff: (slurring) Don’t tell me you usuhally drink like thish. You musht be a confirmed drunkard. Maybe worshe than Hindley.

Huntingdon: No, I’m a gentleman, and believe in good living. Damn me, d’you usually take your meals with that sour faced old bible spouter? No wonder you’ve got no joie de vivre. If I was you, I’d throw him out, closely followed by his good books.wuthering heights

Heathcliff: She and I did that onshe, wit’ his blashted good booksh, and laughed ourshelves sick. (struck) Can’t remember when lasht I laughed.

Huntingdon (appalled) What type of melancholy excuse for an existence is thish? (aside) This wine is getting even to my seasoned head. I’m starting to slur like him.

(The wind howls eerily about the isolated farmhouse. A tap on the window)63daa92b710561d87498049b891eb71b

Heathcliff: Damn! Whosh there? (Another tap)

Heathcliff: Can it be Her at last?

(A wailing sound)

Huntingdon (uses many maledictions) Seeing you won’t see who it is, I suppose I must. (goes to the window and flings back the curtain) There’s nobody there.

A female voice: Oh yes, there is!

Huntingdon: (peers downwards through the darkness) Damn me, it’s some plain faced woman no bigger than a well grown child. Wait a minute, I’ve heard of you! You’ve lost your way; you belong in another novel.

Jane Ere’s voice: Ah, I have been forced to flee my master, who offered me a bigamous marriage and wicked temptations. But I feel no temptation to stay in the company of either of you. I must go on to the River’s household.

Heathcliff (rushes to the window with terrible imprecations) What d’you mean by raising my hopes, you miserable slut? Get out of it, before I set the dogs on you! You’re the sixth character from another novel come here in a week!

Huntingdon: (returning to the table and removing a couple of cards from his sleeve): Anyway, she isn’t handsome enough to tempt me.

Heathcliff: (visibly paling) Silence! You know who said that! The last thing we want is Mr Darcy calling in!

The credits roll up. Voiceover: What will happen next? Don’t miss the next installment of ‘Huntingdon Meets Heathcliff’.

That Dreaded Manuscript in Your Drawer: join Jane Austen and Pushkin in having a Manuscript in That Drawer of Doom

Alex2LargeItaliano(2)First of all, I’d like to wish everyone Season’s Greetings.

Then I’d like to thank Robert Wingfield of INCA for designing for me such a wonderful new cover for ‘Alex Sager’s Demon’.  Here it is, above. You can get it on:



I wanted to write a skit for a Christmas post, perhaps something on the lines of ‘Christmas at Castle Dracula’ or even ‘Heathcliff meets Arthur Huntingdon for Christmas cheer at Wuthering Heights’ or  some such,  but what with one thing and another I have run out of time.  Typical bad time management from me.

So instead, I will write about The Dreaded Manuscript in the Drawer.

I was thinking that for me, 2015 was the ‘Manuscript in the Drawer’ year. I put two of ’em in there. One 50,000 words, one 22,000 words. How’s that for wasted effort? And all done first thing in the morning before a cup of tea.

I’ve also got the opening chapters of a dystopia in there.

I’m halfway through writing the sequel to ‘That Scoundrel Émile Dubois’ and I have re-written the beginnings of ‘That Scoundrel Émile Dubois’ and of ‘Ravensdale’ and ‘Alex Sager’s Demon’, it’s true, so it hasn’t all been Writers’ Block and Consigning to Drawer of Doom for me. Still, I did write about a third each of two versions of the same Gothic story, and both led to prolonged writer’s block and finally were sucked into that Drawer of Doom, which is too often like a black hole for manuscripts.

Once through that good old event horizon and they are usually fated not to escape; too much heavy matter in there.

There was a purely comic and a darker version, and I think one of my resolutions for 2016 must be to draw one of them out, and bring it to completion.

This must be so common a fate for so many initially promising manuscripts. I’m sure many other authors have that manuscript in the drawer that they intend to get round to drawing out from the dustbin of history (perhaps these days, more take the form of abandoned files on the pc which are never printed out and don’t even get to the Shoved Into A Drawer’ stage. No doubt many are eventually deleted, accidentally on purpose).

It would be interesting if we all were to pull them out of drawers or locate those forsaken files in 2016, and see if we can overcome the problems that led us to abandon them.

I can’t help pleading on behalf of these unfortunate manuscripts, you know; after all, the problems that caused their creator to consign them to limbo may not have been insurmountable. Perhaps it was a case of that famous ‘wrong timing’ (Gets carried away) . Perhaps a little give and take,an acceptance that there were  faults on both sides (and other cliches) might be the best approach to adopt to resolve the conflict, and the best way to a creative solution? (Pulls herself together) What’s the matter with me? I’m talking about words, not people, even if those characters did seem vivid!

I’m always morbidly fascinated by the whole dismal matter of the Drawer of Doom. All  famous classic authors seem to have them; Pushkin relegated that unfinished robber novella ‘Dubrovsky’ to his, so that it was only published after his death, complete with the unabridged and convoluted legal document that comes in the middle.

I think it is a shame he abandoned it, as unlike some harsh critics, I loved it when I read it.  He was attempting to produce a work of literary merit which also had popular appeal, and that’s as laudable an aim as can be for an author; after all, it’s trying to emulate Shakespeare in a way. He wrote plays with an eye to popular success, though he just happened to be a genius.

Emily Bronte and Anne Bronte don’t have any unfinished manuscripts, for the simple reason that they urged their sister Charlotte to destroy their unpublished manuscripts after their deaths.

Jane Austen had three unfinished short novels, ‘Lady Susan’ ‘Sanditon’ and ‘The Watsons’. I am sure I am fairly typical of Jane Austen admirers in that I think that none of them deserved to go into that drawer, or anyway, to stay in it. I was particularly interested in ‘The Watsons’ when I read it, and wondered how the plot and sub plots would have worked out.

I am intrigued about some more deceased prolific authors, who were, shall we say, less perfectionist in their attitude to their work. For instance, Charles Garvice, who wrote 150 romantic novels during his writing career, or Barbara Cartland, who easily beat him with a total of 700 (but she did live until she was nearly ninety compared to his seventy).

Did they have their Manuscripts in the Drawer?

Perhaps, though, the Christmas and New Year round over, 2016 will be the year when through a strange process of synchronicity,writers all about the world will draw out those neglected manuscripts from drawers and open those long neglected files on the pic.  I will certainly try and do something with mine; that’s my writing New Year’s resolution. That, and finishing the sequel to ‘Scoundrel’.

Oh yes, and another one about time management.








Anne Bronte’s ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’; Arthur Huntingdon as Gothic Antagonist

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall | Anne BrontëI finished re-reading Anne Bronte’s ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ yesterday.

My impressions of it hadn’t radically changed that much since I first read it in my early twenties. The fact that they hadn’t, startled me; it is disappointing when you re-read something, and find that your viewpoint is the same; you even begin to wonder if your thinking became ossified in your twenties.

I still thought that Anne Bronte as a novelist was underestimated, and I could see how much she had in common with Emily Bronte as a writer of the gothic. As before, I thought she was prepared to defy convention in her writing far more than her sister Charlotte. I thought, again as before, that Arthur Huntingdon was easily as effective, as a Gothic  antagonist, virile in a distorted way, as is Heathcliff, but in an entirely different way.  As the editor Josephine Macdonaugh says in her introduction to the Oxford World’s Classics edition, both are extremely influential in the course of their short lives, but after their premature deaths, normality is restored and a younger generation turn their back on the miseries of the past.

As before, I had to smile the grotesquely comic scenes where Arthur Huntingdon and his rakish guests disgrace themselves in drunken excess.

Again, as when I read it the first time, I thought that the creation of the character of Arthur Huntingdon was brilliant, a Gothic Villain of the Piece who is anything but brooding and Byronic . He is truly a smiling villain, and once more I thought how much more believable he was than Heathcliff, whom Charlotte Bronte remarks is too inhuman in his in his all-absorbing passions to  seem like a man.

Some readers state that they find Anne Bronte’s view of humanity ‘misanthropic’, but on neither of my readings did I find it so (some might say that is because my own view of so-called ‘human nature’ in general at least under our present social order is not extremely high  (there are many  honourable exceptions).

Anne Bronte is after all writing about an innocent girl’s disillusionment with her attempt to turn a drunken libertine from his destructive descent into a brutalised, prematurely aged roué. His choice of friends is based on those who share his passions for hunting, riding, drinking and debauchery; accordingly, the men, and most of the women, featured in this novel will not have a high moral code. One of these men, Grimsby, is clearly a women hater; still, the fact that two of Huntingdon’s previous four boon companions, Lord Loughborough (whose wife he seduces) and the loutish and insensitive but warm-hearted Hattersley do reform, hardly shows an especially grim view of human nature on the author’s part.  Helen also, if rather too aesthetic for modern taste, shows herself to be impervious to Arthur’s bad influence. In a way, in the moral struggle between them, she is the victor after all.

The fourth friend becomes obsessed by the heroine Helen, and works assiduously to seduce her in turn. Invariably repulsed, he equally invariably returns to passionate declarations of devotion. I found his constant attempts rather unbelievable in a selfish, superficial man, and this is certainly a fault in characterisation. So is the fact that Arthur, who is never meant to read anything but hunting journals and newspapers, and to take no notice of sermons, quotes Shakespeare and the Bible rather accurately. I doubt even a wasted good education could account for that.

In fact, I noticed more this time just how the style of the narrators, Gilbert Markham in his direct account and Helen Huntingdon in the story of her disastrous marriage contained in her journal, is frequently too similar.

I did feel far more sorry for Arthur Huntingdon this time round – I thought of him as a silly young man who has a roguish charm which, in fact – and I was unable to work out whether the author intended this – he never entirely loses, even in his later degradation.

When he notes that due to his debauchery, he is ‘not so handsome a fellow as he was’ that he has silver hairs in his ‘beloved chestnut curls’ and worries that he is becoming frankly ‘too corpulent’ I felt unaccountably sorry for him again, for over the course of half a dozen years he ruins his good looks entirely. In the end, even his sensuality is drowned in his obsession with drink.

His behaviour is always outrageously selfish, and his treatment of the infatuated Helen is from the start unthinkingly cruel. Though he certainly marries her for love, he is incapable of treating her fairly as a rational human being, given that his vanity and self-indulgence always motivates his behaviour. When he discovers before their engagement, that as an artist she has made various sketches and paintings of him, he teases her about it unmercifully. When she tears one of these up, he punishes her by flirting with the heartless heiress Annabella Wilmot for days. Finally, discovering Helen in tears, he condescends to propose.

He amuses himself, while Helen is still a starry-eyed bride, with recounting his sexual conquests – not only of experienced matrons – which one might expect in a rake, though most would surely avoid boasting of it to their wife in the interests of marital harmony – but also of ‘confiding girls’.

This latter is a shocking breach of even a rake’s code of conduct. The poor girl realises that in mistaking his light-hearted charm and playful manners for genuine warmth of heart, she has committed herself to a man motivated largely by unfeeling vanity.

Her joyless aunt wanted her to marry a dull, equally insensitive but conventionally ‘good’ man, appropriately called ‘Boreham’ from whose dull clutches the rascally Arthur frequently rescues her during her introduction to society. Her aunt has been married to a rake herself, and thinks any marital fate preferable. Her very opposition to Arthur’s courtship of Helen encourages her niece’s passionate belief in his natural goodness.

By the time they have been married ten months, and Helen is heavily pregnant, Arthur begins to flirt outrageously again with Annabella, now married to his friend Lord Loughborough. When their baby young Arthur  is born, he is pleased to have an heir, but is even jealous of Helen’s devotion.  All this adds to her gradual disillusionment with him. Bored during the summer, when he cannot hunt (note his name; a telling comment on his own pursuit of Helen, as is noted by the editor Josephine Macdonough), Arthur takes to spending whole summer seasons on wild drinking and general debauchery in London.

A note of grim humour is added to the novel by the account of the drinking sessions enjoyed by himself and his male guests:

‘Arthur seated himself beside poor Millicent, confidentially pushing his head into her face, and drawing closer to her as she shrank away from him. He was not so noisy as Hattersley, but his face was exceedingly flushed…’

‘Hattersley tried cursing and swearing, but it would not do; he then took a number of books from the table beside him, and threw them, one by one, at the object of his wrath, but Arthur only laughed the more…At last he (Arthur) came( upstairs to bed), slowly and stumblingly; he ascended the stairs, supported by Grimsby and Hattersley, who neither of them walked quite steadily themselves….he himself was not laughing now, but sick and stupid..’

When Helen discovers Arthur’s adultery with Loughborough’s wife, she takes a surprisingly hard line for a Victorian wife. She refuses to ‘live with him as his wife’ from then onwards until he sees how much in the wrong he is. As he never does, that is the end of marital closeness between them.

Interestingly in a Gothic Villain of the Piece, Arthur’s behaviour  towards Helen remains ostensibly ‘gentlemanly’. He never uses violence against her as he oppresses her. When he starts to encourage his small son to swear and drink alcohol, Helen decides to leave him. When he reads in her journal over her shoulder (motivated, she supposes, by ‘base curiosity’), he remarks as he snatches the book, ‘It seems very interesting, love; but it’s rather long. I’ll look at it another time…’

Realising that she intends to finance her escape by her paintings, he destroys all these and her equipment. However, she enlists the help of her brother and escapes to live in isolation at Wildfell Hall, where the narrator and hero, Gilbert Markham, meets her.

However, at the end, Helen does forgive Arthur Huntingdon. When about a year later she hears that he is dangerously ill and deserted by all, Helen returns to nurse him. In a sentimental novel, he would at once be both repentant and grateful. In this Gothic novel, he is at first incredulous and suggests she does it to flaunt her superior moral stature. At length, however, he comes to realise he genuine desire to help him and to prevent him from dying unrepentant.

He does die unable to feel remorse for anything but his bad treatment of Helen – but – and this is what I liked most about this novel, in both my readings – neither Anne Bronte nor her creation Helen Huntingdon believe in eternal damnation.

She believes, rather, that a different interpretation of the meaning of the Greek phrases mean that nobody – even far worse people than Arthur Huntingon – will be sent to eternal perdition, but only for a period of atonement to fit them for a better world: – ‘How could I bear to think that that poor, trembling soul was hurried away to everlasting torment? It would drive me mad.’

Helen finds happiness with Gilbert Markham, whom she understandably initially despises for his own vanity, but who has been able to transcend it in a genuine love for her.

This novel, for all its weaknesses in characterisation at various points, and for all it’s length – the story itself can’t be far short of 200,000 words – is both intriguing and original. Although it is often melancholy in tone, the overall effect is not one of despair or cynicism.

It is about a failure of an idealistic and devout girl to reclaim a wicked young rake from drink and debauchery. She finds herself paying bitterly for her blithe assumption that she can reform him without too much pain to either of them.

Then, and later in the nineteenth century, romantic novels by such writers as Charles Garvice give ludicrously sentimental and unlikely accounts of the reform of such young men through exchanging just a few sentences with just such an innocent girl. One can see that if Anne Bronte declared that she wrote ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ as a warning to young female readers, it was needed to counteract the influlence of such tales.

‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ by Anne Bronte; An Underestimated Classic

63daa92b710561d87498049b891eb71bA reader of this blog was flattering enough to want my opinion of Anne Bronte’s ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’. I was delighted, as that was a novel that fascinated me, and it gave me a reason to bring it up on my long and dusty reading list ( a second attempt at ‘Moby Dick’ was supposed to be next).

I first read this longer ago than I care to admit, when I was in my early twenties. I remember being impressed with it then, and thinking that for powerful writing, and Gothic effects, it is easily the equal of either ‘Wuthering Heights’ or ‘Jane Eyre’; why was Anne Bronte so underestimated as the least gifted of the Bronte sisters?

I think the introduction of the edition I am reading 2008 by Oxford World Classics  by Josephine McDonagh, gives one very good reason. Anne Bronte was the youngest child in the family. Older siblings are not exactly notorious for giving a fair estimation of the capacities of the youngest, not as a conscious piece of injustice, but through an unquestioned attitude which never concedes that youngest sibling can be anything but  comparatively undeveloped, and can often fail to take into account the age of the youngest when certain remembered events took place (I couldn’t possibly have experienced the position of youngest sibling myself, by any chance?).

There is an anecdote about the reactions of the young Bronte’s when each chose one of Bramwell’s set of toy soldiers, the imaginary adventures of whom would lead to the construction of the fantasy worlds of ‘Gondal for Anne and Emily,  while Bramwell and Charlotte created ‘Angria’. Charlotte and Emily chose fairly striking figures; Anne selected a little, unremarkable one; this seems to be taken to indicate generally less striking taste on Anne Bronte’s part and perhaps a wish to take the place of a follower in life. Ms McDonagh points out that Anne was six years old at the time.

Little is known about Anne’s life; the little we do know of her is often from the recollections of her fond but condescending older sister Charlotte, and it seems that she has been judged accordingly as a writer of works less strong, as something of an afterthought amongst critic s of the Bronte’s.

More recently this has been belatedly challenged, and now I come to the second reason why I think that Anne Bronte’s work has been underestimated. ‘Agnes Grey’ her first published work ,was a short, vivid and painfully believable (because based on personal experience) account of a sheltered young girl’s short career as a governess. It was not a ‘romantic’ novel (in the old sense) with a gothic hero, but a realistic one.

It is shocking in its depiction of dismally indulged, unfeeling children and astoundingly insensitive parents who saw a governess as a drudge devoid of human feeling; but it is not gothic in tone. There are no rambling, derelict mansions, brooding anti heroes or haunted attics, wild passions or captive maidens such as one encounters in ‘Wuthering Heights’ and ‘Jane Eyre’. It is a sobering (if you’ll forgive the expression, in the light of what is to come) tale, and one with a strong moral point (all the Bronte sisters were strongly moral in their differing ways).

But ‘Agnes Grey’ could not have the impact on the critics in the manner of Charlotte and Emily Bronte’s Gothic novels which were also published in 1847, and Anne Bronte was accordingly seen as the more conventional, milder and narrower writer.

‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ was thought by critics to veer in the opposite direction. ‘Acton Bell’ was fated as a writer to fail to please. Critics, though retaining the belief that she was still the least gifted Bronte, were disgusted at the depictions of the wild drunkenness and moral degeneracy depicted within, and in general took a low view of the literary merit of the novel.Helen H painting

Anne Bronte here depicts the life of a devout but healthily sensual girl from the gentry who in the late 1820’s falls for the charming and high spirited, hard drinking Regency rake Arthur Huntingdon. She marries him against the advice of the aunt who has raised her. This aunt, embittered by her own experience as the wife of an unprincipled man, urges Helen to marry the appropriately dubbed Mr Boarham and live an existence of dull respectability. Anne Bronte makes an excellent job of managing to portray Helen’s physical attraction to the wicked Arthur for all the limits of Victorian text.

Helen believes that she can use her influence to reform Arthur; this scheme will, of course, only work if Arthur truly wishes to change his lifestyle himself, particularly as Helen in marrying him gives up all her legal rights.

She underestimates the hold that drink and his egotistical joy in his libertine conquests has over him, and unlike the outcome apparently foreseen by many a romantic historical novelist who blithely marries off a heroine to a Regency rake who claims that he will change now that he has met the love of his life, Helen gradually loses her respect for Arthur as he sinks into drunken debauchery, while what he sees as her joyless hectoring quickly extinguishes his passion for her.

The disgust that the critics felt for the brutality of some of the scenes of riotous drunkenness in the novel seem to me to indicate Victorian repression. They seem as appalled as much as anything by the preoccupation that the author might possibly be a woman, and if so, what sort of a woman could witness, let alone reproduce in a novel, such appalling excess?

Of course, Anne Bronte herself is appalled by drunkenness and squalid debauchery; while her (startlingly modern) ‘Universalist’ outlook was that of an enlightened Christian who had no belief in eternal damnation, through the lips of her heroine, she expresses the strongest moral disapprobation of such brutal excesses; but for the critics, the unimpeachable Christian moral of the story was nto sufficient to make up for its shocking content.AnneBronte.jpg

Charlotte Bronte herself did not consider ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ worthy of publication and excluded it from the posthumus editions of the novels of her sisters’ which she subsequently to bring out.

I am one of a growing number of modern readers who consider that Anne Bronte was generally underestimated author of strong and impressive texts and fully the equal of her more celebrated sisters.

I hope to write more of this in subsequent posts as I read through the novel, but for now, I would like to remark that the note of startled horror which Anne Bronte brings to the drunkenness of Arthur Huntingdon and his friends was to some extent the product of her own age.

Views on how far it is socially acceptable to be obviously drunk in public vary between ages. In the eighteenth century, members of both houses of parliament were sometimes so drunk that they would vomit, and I gather that across the classes, drunkenness was far more socially acceptable up until well into the nineteenth century.

A great many long suffering female relatives of all classes accepted that frequently male family members would drink until ‘their ideas became confused’ (to quote Elizabeth Gaskell). Beer (and rather stronger beer than is sold nowadays) was commonly taken instead of the unsafe water, and while the upper classes took port and brandy the lower classes drank gin.

Helen is in many ways a delightful heroine, spirited and compassionate, lively and opinionated; Ms McDonough quotes the remarks of an early critic, who comments that Helen, with her modern disgust at drunkenness, is slightly incongruous amongst the Regency rakes. The critic comments that it is as if Jane Austen had entered into an earlier, coarser age. I think that this critic to some extent has a point; a woman from their era would have been too familiar with male drunkenness to be shocked at encountering it. Anne Bronte probably was incorrect in dismissing the more tolerant views of the earlier age towards excess. However, that would not mean that a wife of spirit would necessarily find it acceptable as a regular habit in a spouse, and Helen is every bit a woman of spirit.

Clarissa, Richardson’s heroine of a hundred years earlier, does not have to struggle against drunkenness in Lovelace, because  drunkenness is not one of the excesses in which he indulges, but given the sharp homilies she repeatedly gives him on all his other failings, we may be sure that had it been one, that most thoroughly Georgian of heroines would have taken him to task for that too.

And on the sheltered gentility of Jane Austen’s heroines, that can be overestimated; they too, were from the Regency age. Elinor from ‘Sense and Sensibility’, though  decidedly from the respectable gentry, assumes when she meets an incoherent and emotional Willoughby that he must be drunk. She calmly advises him, ‘Your errand will more properly be conducted tomorrow’.

Next week: More reflections on ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’.